My second son’s first word, as a toddler, was “go”. He used to run to my car, pull on the door handle, and say “Go! Go!” He is now almost 40, and has settled down into his adult roles of husband, father and breadwinner. I don’t really know how much the urge to “go” dominates his life any more.
My husband, on the other hand, was born with the travel bug. Since long before I met him, in high school and university days, he regularly went all over the country alone by train. When he got a job with a waste water management company in Japan, he was personally responsible for starting up their International Division, and for setting up branches of the company in Australia, the US and Europe (Germany). He has been on hundreds of business trips, as much as possible coupled with individual adventures, and although retired and at present working as a consultant, still says “I want to see the world!”. He is not kidding, even though he has “seen” more of the world than anyone I know.
I, on the other hand, am more of a stick-in-the-mud. I like being at home, especially alone. I have done my share of traveling, and have seen about as much of the world as I want to, especially since these days, even if I pay for “premium” seating and so on, overseas travel has become steadily less comfortable and interesting for me. As I age, it’s just too much hassle to get on a plane for hours, worry about connections, figure out how to get somewhere, only to get to the place I want to “see”, and perhaps find myself thinking, “This is IT?”
My last big overseas trip before COVID was to Mexico. I stayed a week in Oaxaca (only) with Spanish-speaking friends who kindly agreed to accompany me. It was lovely to sleep in the same room every night, to go to the grocery store, to get to know a little bistro in our neighborhood, to spend a whole morning in the Botanical Gardens or a whole evening walking leisurely around the old quarter listening to a guide’s stories, to watch an indigenous group do a ritual in the street and afterwards discover that a 15-cm scorpion had been sitting next to my foot the whole time. That was MY trip, and I “saw” as much as I wanted to, and absorbed the feeling of the place as much as I could in the limited time I had.
What a difference from my usual travel experience with my husband. No more than 2 nights’ stay in any place, constantly moving and usually trying to keep my husband in view as he walks quickly ahead, disappearing around corners in crowds, trying to “see” whatever the guidebook recommends. My personal preference would be to spend a couple of hours in a sidewalk café, just watching the world go by, but I always let myself be dragged on these expeditions. It turns out to be the same trip as thousands of tourists have taken before and after me.
As you might infer from this, my husband is not one to waste time. He wants to pack as much as he can into any trip. One evening in Rome we had a big fight about this. I was exhausted from walking around St. Peters and the Vatican Museum all day, and just wanted to curl up in bed with a book till it was time to go to dinner. He said that was a waste (“But you’re in Rome!!”), and took himself off to have a solitary adventure riding local transport for a couple of hours. It was then that we realized that it was OK for each of us not to always be together, irritating each other with our different rhythms; we could go our separate ways sometimes.
Nowadays when on a trip, we either separate for a while, or put up with each other’s way as we experience the place together. A certain amount of compromise is involved. It has taken me many years to figure out WHY I was so uncomfortable on these trips and that my way was OK too, even if different.
These days, he often goes somewhere either by himself, or with friends, and I stay home alone and relax into doing exactly what I want, which is increasingly to work on various projects in my own time, decide for myself what I’m going to eat, when to go to bed and when to get up, etc. I have a good time, as good as he has by climbing a mountain or guiding someone through some area by bicycle, though I have trouble convincing him of it. I find being at home quite fruitful, and I get a lot done. During the decade (about 2005-2019) he was traveling for business, and was home only about half the time, that was also the time when I painted 50 pictures and published three books. We both had a very productive decade, though the way we used our time was so different.
Recently I had to review two travel books written by acquaintances, both of which were about little-known areas of Japan. Now this is a paradox. Introducing places that are wonderful but not on everyone’s radar has an innate danger: that these places will be spoiled by the very influx of tourists that they need to survive. We all know of places that try too hard to “serve the tourists” by making things more convenient, like putting a vast car park right next to the place instead of letting people park a little farther away and discover the neighborhood and small shops leading up to it. Ironically, the increase in tourist throughput kills the neighborhood, which cannot compete with the “convenient” parking lots and souvenir shops.
In the old days, more than a century ago, many travel books were written as vicarious experiences for people who would probably never get to go there, rather than as guides or collections of ideas for what to “see” for people planning trips. These books were laden with personal experiences, literary allusions, and descriptions that would be satisfying in themselves, and not make a reader immediately want to put that out-of-the-way place on their itinerary. It was “armchair travel” and could be enjoyed without ever leaving the comfort of the home. This is the kind of book I recently reviewed. It was peaceful and pleasant to use my imagination instead of my credit card to “go” to these places in my armchair.
This might not satisfy people like my husband, for whom travel has a large element of problem-solving to it; for him finding out how to get to a place and successfully getting there is akin to negotiating a complex maze -- it’s a mental exercise. And there are a lot of people like that. What is needed, in these days of taking a selfie in front of the Golden Pavilion to “prove” that you went there, is for everyone to think carefully about what type of person you are, what kind of travel you really enjoy, and whether the place itself will benefit from your visit. Would armchair travel be more satisfying in the long run? How much do we need to physically go to a place we’re interested in?
When did travel become so fraught and obsessed with ticking off “places to see” on a list? Why are we all gripped by FOMO (fear of missing out)? How much better a person will you be, how will your life be better, if you “see” these things? In a world where “reality” itself is up for grabs, these are questions that need to be pondered.